Why Britain faces a bleak future of food shortages

Britain faces a ‘perfect storm’ of water shortage and lack of food, says the government’s chief scientist, and climate change and crop and animal diseases will add to future woes. Science is now striving to find solutions.

It was an ecological disaster that occurred on the other side of the planet. Yet the drought that devastated the Australian wheat harvest last year had consequences that shook the world. It sent food prices soaring in every nation. Wheat prices across the globe soared by 130%, while shopping bills in Britain leapt by 15%.

A year later and the cost of food today has still to fall to previous levels. More alarmingly, scientists are warning that far worse lies ahead. A “perfect storm” of food shortages and water scarcity now threatens to unleash public unrest and conflict in the next 20 years, the government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, has warned.

In Britain, a global food shortage would drive up import costs and make food more expensive, just as the nation’s farmers start to feel the impact of disrupted rainfall and rising temperatures caused by climate change. “If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move to avoid food and water shortages,” he told a conference earlier this year.

The reliable availability of food – once taken for granted – has become a major cause for alarm among politicians and scientists. Next month several of Britain’s research councils, together with the Food Standards Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Development – will announce a taskforce that will channel the UK’s efforts in feeding its own population and playing a full role in preventing starvation in other nations.

The problem is summed up by Professor Janet Allen, director of research at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). “We will have to grow more food on less land using less water and less fertiliser while producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

No one said science was easy, of course. Nevertheless, the scale of the problem is striking. It is also unprecedented, says Professor Mike Bevan, acting director of the John Innes Centre in Norfolk. “We are going to have to produce as much food in the next 50 years as was produced over the past 5,000 years. Nothing less will do.”

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